:: Article

Pretty Hate Machine

By Colin Herd.

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Hate: A Romance, Tristan Garcia, translation Marion Duvert & Lorin Stein, Faber & Faber 2010

Tristan Garcia’s debut novel La meilleure part des hommes won the Prix De Flore in 2008. According to the blurb on the back cover of its re-titled English translation by Marion Duvert and Paris Review editor Lorin Stein, it’s “a controversial first novel that took the French literary world by storm.” Marketing hype aside, it seems totally fitting if that’s the case, since controversy and the French literary world are two things that Garcia’s novel certainly doesn’t lack. Set in the heady and glamorous world of Parisian cultural circles, and spanning over twenty years from the 80s to the 00s, Garcia’s novel explores the impact of AIDS through the entangled emotional, political and philosophical fall-out from the messily intertwined personal and professional lives of four intellectuals.

Narrated through the voice of Elizabeth Levallois, a journalist covering culture and fashion, Hate: A Romance convincingly sustains a tone that wavers from objectively journalistic to affectionately (for the most part) intimate with the characters depicted. Elizabeth briefly introduces the other three protagonists: William Miller, invariably referred to as ‘Willie’, “a butterfly coming out of his cocoon” who starts the book arriving in Paris with “no job, no nothing. Less than nothing;” Dominique Rossi, ‘Doume’, a journalistic colleague of Elizabeth’s covering music and nightlife, and also a socialist activist, who is introduced to Willie by Elizabeth and the two embark on an intense five-year relationship that ends bitterly; and Jean-Michel Leibovitz, ‘Leibo’, a philosopher who met Dominique through leftist organizations, and who has written a philosophical treatise on fidelity, with whom Elizabeth is having an affair. The character of Elizabeth herself is deprecatingly self-portrayed:

“high cheekbones, difficult wiry hair, legs a tiny bit soft in the calves. I work out. I diet, sort of. What will become of me? In this world some people are distinct individuals while others are no more than paths of transmission. At my age, the signs are unmistakable: I belong in category two.”

As the AIDS epidemic hits Paris, with Willie and Doume both positive, they rawly and painfully clatter against each other and ping off fanatically in opposing high-profile directions, with Doume heading up STAND, an organization advocating protective sex, and Willie finding cult fame as a wild writer of fragmentary, undisciplined often scurrilous books, an outrageously unpredictable chat-show guest, an icon among young gay men and a vocal opponent of everything STAND and Doume believe in. With Doume and Willie bent on destroying the other’s reputation, their personal ‘hate’ spreads like a virus into a philosophical, social and political battle. With death a seeming inevitability, ‘hate’ becomes the main source of energy for Doume and Willie, it’s their mutual hate that provides the spirit and fuel behind their separate, and in some sense mutually-cancelling endeavours. Willie embodies and articulates a perhaps muddled but passionate and angrily convinced philosophical and emotional position of ‘hate’.

“Because hate’s important. It’s the most important thing. We live in a society where hate is incredibly underrated. Hate brings you to life. It’s everything. Real hate – like Spinoza said, hate is where it’s at.”

He was windmilling his arms in the air.

“See I’m going to be famous for that, and if they hate you, even if you die, still it means you’re somebody. And that beats love in a way…”

He thought about it for two seconds.

“Because love, you know, love is conquered by death, because of course you don’t want what you love to die, but the thing is, you do want what you hate to die, and in the end, even death isn’t enough, because the thing you hate did exist and you can’t do anything about that. It’s better than death. Love isn’t even in the running.”

Meanwhile, Doume first falls from favour, then through his newspaper, leftist and publishing contacts, he releases a carefully stage-managed book of conversations with Leibovitz that re-establishes both of their careers by setting out their version of events. Incidentally, Leibo ends up adopting a related, if much less heartfelt, position to Willie, of “always fighting the current,… you know, of the times you live in” while moving surprisingly in-step with the establishment of the day, supporting Chirac early in his campaign and accordingly somewhat emptily ending up offered the position of Minister for Culture.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Garcia’s extremely impressive novel is how he collapses the barrier between emotional lives and the public philosophical positions of the characters. Garcia (who has himself written a book of philosophy) is equally adept at sketching intimate moments, such as the heartbreaking depiction of Willie, publicly out-of-favour having been defamed by Leibo and Doume, abandoned by friends, dying from AIDS at a hospital, visited only by Elizabeth and occasionally his mother who has shut her eyes to his homosexuality. Willie’s convinced and railing that he’s the only one without AIDS, that AIDS is a health-board plot transmitted via meds to contain the ‘threat’ of homosexuality. Since he doesn’t take the meds he can’t have AIDS. Elizabeth can’t bare to dispel his delusion. Her intimate tone, and her obvious affection for the wild and at times unbearable Willie helps add to the sensation of familiarity throughout, the feeling that the characters and the positions of Doume, Willie and Leibo match up to existing real-life characters. In short, this novel is convincing. This is in part because the characters are to some extent based on real writers. It’s hard not to see a resemblance in Willie of the writer Guillaume Dustan (whose real name, in fact, was William Baranes) and in Douminique, of the journalist Didier Lestrade who founded ACT UP in France (an organization fairly analogous to Doume’s STAND). Nevertheless, it’s a great testament to Garcia’s skill as a novelist that he is able so fully and fascinatingly to immerse his novel in the anxieties, fears and obsessions of the time and place, a frightening, confusing and turbulently shifting landscape of middle-eastern tension, AIDS, techno, MTV, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Internet.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Colin Herd lives and writes in Edinburgh. Poems have recently appeared in Shampoo, Streetcake, Velvet Mafia, Gutter and Pop Serial, and reviews in the blog of Chroma journal.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 21st, 2010.